Eggers sunnyside up at Duke

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Dave Eggers spoke at Dukes Page Auditorium last night
  • Dave Eggers spoke at Duke's Page Auditorium last night
The theme of writer-humanitarian Dave Eggers's talk to a large audience at Page Auditorium last night was simple and almost shockingly optimistic: "We are a nation that instinctively wants to help people," he said early on. "This is still, and I think always will be, the most welcoming country in the world."

Anecdote after anecdote exampled Eggers' stance, from changing someone's flat tire to tutoring kids (which is what his San Francisco literacy project, 826 Valencia, has been doing since 2002) to saving lives after Hurricane Katrina. Eggers, who was at Duke to speak about his new book, Zeitoun, invoked the words of one of his heroes, Studs Terkel: "I've always felt," Terkel said, "that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence—providing they have the facts, providing they have the information."

That last clause is critical, a big and bewildering If. Who controls information, how is it disseminated, and is it true as reported? Zeitoun, which Eggers spent most of his talk summarizing and riffing off of, is his account of a Syrian-born painting contractor in New Orleans. When Katrina hit, Abdulrahman Zeitoun stayed on, canoeing around the city and rescuing people and pets alike, seized by a sense that God—specifically, Allah—had charged him with this task. "Here's a guy who knows absolutely why he's on the planet," Eggers said, then turned that almost ontological idea out toward his mostly student audience who, he added, are at Duke presumably seeking their own reason for being on earth.

What happened to Zeitoun next was horrible: Presumed by a couple of policemen to be not only a looter but also a Muslim terrorist, he was arrested and put in a cage in a makeshift holding pen not far from the Superdome, then transferred to a maximum security prison in rural Louisiana. Stripped of his identity, refused even a phone call to his American wife, who was in Phoenix with their children and presumed Zeitoun was dead, the Syrian Muslim was finally given the help he needed by a Christian missionary distributing Bibles in the prison. This "small act of heroism" may have saved Zeitoun from permanent disappearance. Eggers later noted that 359 Katrina prisoners were still unaccounted for—literally no one knew where they were—nine months after the hurricane. Again, that need to have the information, to get the facts in the hands of the right people. A Tulane University Law professor undertook finding those 359 people, who might still be in prison otherwise, many of them unjustly.

This is depressing stuff, and Eggers acknowledged that "we responded to a humanitarian problem with a military solution," noting that within 24 hours of Katrina's landfall, while emergency rescue failed at almost every level from the city all the way up to FEMA, an efficient prison had been constructed in New Orleans. "We treated our own citizens as the enemy," Eggers said. The machinery was broken, and Katrina exposed its disrepair.

Nonetheless—surprisingly for an avatar of Generation X, that most cynical, supposedly, of all demographics—Eggers chose to focus on the ways in which Americans were helping each other, after Katrina and elsewhere, almost rhapsodizing about that feeling of being "electrified by the sense that you were put to use." What is refreshing about Eggers's formulation is that his Good-Samaritan zeal (which he preached with almost religious fervor at times last night) not only does not require that almost unattainable "selflessness" usually invoked but in fact appeals to our egos. We should help people because it's a rush, because we are "electrified," and because doing so builds our self-worth and personal capital, like acing a test or winning at sports. Helping connects us to our American individualism. It was an ingenious formulation. Eggers was making it easier for his Duke student listeners—one of the most privileged populations in the country—to want to help. It was both an earnest and shrewd performance. It was also entertaining and funny.

Dave Eggers probably has no interest in public office—"I don't listen to the noise," he declared, adding that he doesn't have internet in his office—largely because he is so committed to one-on-one connection with people (he also wrote What Is The What, the "autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng," which tells the story of Deng's harrowing escape from war-torn Sudan and his settlement in the US). He preached that, too, urging us to listen to people rather than the news, to get as close to the street as we could. "Human contact on every level" was his way of putting it. He counseled patience, as well. Also, "Don't Google yourself." (Laughter ensued.) Eggers also offered, slightly facetiously, a "four-point plan" that he had come up with on the plane to RDU: 1) Listen. 2) Have faith. 3) Take action. 4) Stay human.

If Eggers were to choose to enter politics, he would make a superb governmental leader. He is, above everything else—compulsively helpful, irrepressibly idealistic, charismatic and articulate—a patriot in the best sense of the word. Eggers responded to the last question he took, a leading one about Tea Party intolerance, without taking the bait, but with an ingenious, probably accidental, near double-entendre. Approaching an answer to the question by talking about the Rev. Terry Jones, who achieved recent notoriety with his Koran-burning mission in Gainesville, Fla., Eggers said, "I've been to Gainesville; I know those guys." (He was practicing what he preached: getting the information right from the source, the people.) When Jones was threatening his religious vandalism, Gainesvillians rallied together and said "that's not us" to a preacher of intolerance and hate. In so doing, they helped prevent Jones's cultural arson. "That's what makes us us," Eggers concluded. You could almost imagine those last two letters, "us," in all caps.

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